Superhero movies are doing what the church won’t: teach theology.
I really wish the general public got better theology than what’s taught in superhero movies.
This is a thought I’ve had for a while, pretty much since The Dark Knight came out, but it hadn’t been blatant enough for the public until Batman vs. Superman.
I saw the movie last night and my friend Sam Bennet, who we ran into at the theater, warned me, “You’re going to want to write a blog post about it.” He was right.
Batman v Superman was the first one to make it unmistakable that theology was the subject at hand, and it did the worst job yet at handling it. I’ve got so many thoughts and opinions that it’s hard to pick just a few out to write about, but I’ll try. Looking ahead you’ll get a Batman vs Superman Review (As my friends will tell you, I love reviewing movies, though they would put it, “Ruining movies just after watching them by analyzing them to death from all angles.”) followed by an overview of the bad theology in BvS.
Batman vs. Superman Review (SPOILER ALERT!!!!)
It was definitely complex, well actually, not so much. Let me break it down. Batman is mad at Superman for the damage he caused Metropolis (and Wayne Tower) in Man of Steel and he doesn’t think Superman is counting the cost of his actions. He goes on a 2-year quest to destroy Supes. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor is the lamest heir to a Fortune 500 Company known to man, and he’s trying to find kryptonite and convince the US government to let him weaponize it for world defense. The senator says no, so he blows up the capital building, killing her, and making it look like Superman was in on it. Superman has identity crisis struggles with truly being good, and then Luthor kidnaps Superman’s mom to force him into trying to kill the bat. Batman’s all for this (he’s been weaponizing kryptonite and working out with tractor tires in a montage) so the battle’s on. Batman’s about to win and kill Superman when superman says “Save Martha” (His mom’s name, which also happens to be Batman’s mom’s name!) They become friends and save the world together, but Lex has a plan B: make a mutant Kryptonian (Doomsday) out of general Zod’s body. He unleashes doomsday and Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman team up to kick butt, but Supes dies in the process… or does he? (Yes. That’s the “cliffhanger” it ends with.) See, not that complicated.
This is what everyone else seems to be complaining about with BvS: “It’s too muddled and there’s too much going on.” I had no problem with the complex plot line. To the contrary, I thought it was one of the movie’s greatest strengths. All of the major plot points were properly motivated (with the exception of Batman’s change of heart) and it was varied and interesting. I didn’t find the plot muddled at all. Characters on the other hand…
It’s Superman with an identity crisis 2.0: The Man of Ore. (‘Cause he’s not quite hard as steel yet but we can’t be ripping off Marvel.) This was not the Superman we all know and love. Superman has always been the standard for unmitigated truth, justice, and virtue. He is completely unbeatable (unless you have kryptonite handy) and he is ALWAYS GOOD. Well not so according to Zack Snyder. I guess Synder wanted to make Superman more “relatable,” so in Man of Steel he had Superman willingly kill (Something Superman would never do unless it was actually Bizarro Superman or a villain posing as Superman). In this movie Superman is continually “struggling” to even desire to do good, because it all seems like a vague dream cooked up by his small town farmer father, so what’s really the point?
It’s the same problem that the Star Trek movies had. They were fun space movies… they just weren’t Star Trek. As my dad and I say, “The minute Spock started making out with Uhura on the transporter platform I was done. Spock doesn’t ‘make out’ with people, he definitely doesn’t do it with Uhura, and they DEFINITELY don’t do it ON THE TRANSPORTER PLATFORM! That would be completely illogical.” If you’re going to kill the characters we know and love, at least do us the courtesy of giving them a decent burial like they did for Spock at the end of Wrath of Kahn.
Hilarious nerdy tangent:
(oh wait, I forgot… nobody dies at the end of the Wrath of Kahn remake… because Kirk goes in to face the radiation instead of Spock… Kirk who isn’t half Vulcan… the necessary biological component that allowed Spock to withstand the radiation as long as he did in the original Wrath of Kahn… and then Kirk somehow survives what killed the half-Vulcan in the original… [because that makes total sense]… thus robbing one of the coolest minority characters of his most virtuous act… and giving it to the young white guy… who’s played by the straight male actor… instead of the gay one… so we can piss off the nerds, the racial minorities, the LGBTs, and the feminists in one fell swoop… )
All that to say Superman’s character is supposed to be the superhero version of the Moral Law. He IS the standard of goodness, so Snyder’s repeated attempts to “humanize” him (a point to which I will return) is torturous to watch.
Lots of people had the same problem with the Batman character: “He kills people in this one! But Batman never kills anybody!” But actually, as my nerdier-than-thou friends pointed out to me before I saw the movie, “Batman does kill people in The Dark Knight Returns comics when Bruce Wayne is a lot older, so that was totally in line with his character.” So, I didn’t have a problem with that. I actually liked Ben Affleck’s Batman more than I expected to. I just wish I could’ve seen more of it. Unfortunately, we got a lot of Bruce Wayne and not a lot of Batman, and even when he was Batman, everyone was calling him Bruce (seriously… the idea of secret identities was completely lost on Zack Snyder). My only real problem with Batman’s character was that he finally decides not to kill Superman just because his mom’s name is Martha.The little boy who watched his parents get gunned down suddenly comes flooding to the screen in a plot motivation that goes, “Your mom’s name is the same as my mom’s name?! Let’s be best friends!” It’s only slightly worse than, “I like Clark because he has a pool and his parents let us watch R rated movies!”
However, if I put aside the major resolution to the plot line for which the movie is titled, Affleck’s Batman was decent.
Wonder Woman on the other hand got on my nerves. The feminist movement was well and truly embodied in this “be unnecessarily better than everyone else on screen, even Superman” character. Why? “Because uterus; that’s why!” During the fight scene where she shows up (with her own heavy-handed 2-measure-long guitar riff, so it’s repeated 16 times) She is virtually unfazed by Doomsday’s death rays (cause she’s got a shield!) and is able to actually do damage to and cut off Doomsday’s limbs, which the movie established earlier could only be done by kryptonite weapons… unless you’re a girl! And she does it all in a skimpy outfit to make it clear that she’s a sex object as well, because feminism! She’s in control of her sexuality, and can use it to manipulate and deceive (and sell movie posters) and that’s a beautiful thing. Riiiiight… But at least that’s what she was in the comics, so props for that I guess.
I imagine the concept meeting for Luthor’s character went something like this, “We need a dweeby character to spout off with all of these weird theological claims, be a whiny brat, and also wear enough white vans to get the audience to think ‘Daaaamn Daniel!’ You think you could make it work, Jesse?” “Yeah, I’ll have to play it like a twitchy schizophrenic.” “That’s okay. It’ll go great with your terrible orange hair.” I can only hope that Eisenberg was doing exactly what the directors told him to do, because I’d hate to think he made those character and delivery decisions himself.
I have trouble hating Amy Adams. I’ve liked her in every role of hers I’ve seen except American Hustle. The only real problem is that her character seems like a catch all plot-device to move the story line or to get Superman to show up more than an actual person… but again, at least that’s accurate to her character in the comics.
Since he was played by Jeremy Irons, who has aged very well, I was thinking two main things: 1) Wow… Alfred either found the fountain of youth, or he’s got the best plastic surgeon in Gotham… which is probably the case. 2) When is he going to say, “Simon says…” or “Long live the king” or find some other way to suddenly become the villain… because come on, it’s Jeremy Irons.
The major theme in the movie, good vs evil, almost comes through loud and clear, except not at all clear… just loud. It’s as if Snyder and his writers were shouting the words “GOOD” and “EVIL” at you, but since the words are completely devoid of any clear definition in this film (and often times, it seems, used as synonyms of each other), they just come through as LOUD NOISES!
A slightly clearer, but quite minor, theme is that of love. The scenes between Lois and Superman and between Superman and his mom give an almost great picture of true love: complete and utter devotion to the true good of the other person. Superman is always willing to sacrifice everything in order to save the two women he loves the most. Set aside the fact that Superman is living with a girl he’s not married to (something I think Superman 50 years ago would have cringed at) because, come on, he’s just a guy who was raised on a small farm in Kansas… they don’t care about old-fashioned morality and family values in that culture. (Also set aside the nearly pornographic conversation where Amy Adams is totally naked in the tub [not revealing any “critical areas”] and Clark Kent actually keeps ALL of his clothes on, even when he gets in the tub. Now that’s true love. Yaaay feminism!)
There is also an interesting question of power going on through the whole movie, and this is where there was marginal success. Questions of whether Superman is always right in using his virtually limitless power, and what lengths one should go to in order to oppose the possibility of corruption do get raised, even if the answers supplied are lacking. Bruce Wayne has a particularly intriguing line talking to Alfred about Superman, “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race, and if we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty… and we have to destroy him.” Do we now? It’s an interesting question that should be considered further.
This film was obviously on the cutting edge of special effects technology. The CGI was stunning, dark, and deeply textured: exactly what you expect from a Zack Snyder film. The only critiques I have are the mediocre musical score, the over-dramatic Wayne family murder scene, and the fact that all of Doomsday’s effects made me wish I had a pair of sunglasses. Also, I wish there had been more imagination with how Superman fights. We had enough of slamming through whole buildings in Man of Steel and it lost everyone’s interest the first time.
Given how negative this review sounds, you would expect me to have utterly hated the film. Actually, I found it rather entertaining. It may be that my expectations going in were so low that it was easy to fly over the bar I had set, but I also appreciated some of the apologetic and theological questions it posed. It gave terrible answers to those questions (to which I will turn next) and was completely un-subtle in posing them, but at least it put the questions in people’s minds, and I enjoyed that aspect of it. All in all, if you have 3 hours to kill and want to see some cool action sequences with a long and complex plot to go along, it’s not a bad option. My scale for rating movies goes like this: Do Not Watch EVER – Do Not Pay to Watch – Redbox it, but don’t pay theater prices – Go to the theater to see it, but only once – See it in theaters twice, it’s that good and you missed something the first time – Spend as much money as you can seeing this movie as many times as you can, you won’t regret it.
Batman vs Superman gets a Redbox mention with a possible theater trip for the CGI.
The Bad Theology in Batman vs. Superman
There was so much material it was hard to choose, but I’ll cover 4 points: (1) The Problem of Evil (2) Botching the Jesus Trope (3) Good is a Conversation? (3) Humans are the Source of Hope
Problem of Evil
Easily the most blatant theological/apologetic shout-out in the movie, Lex Luthor straight-up summarizes the age old problem of evil in the most widely recognized form: “No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from daddy’s fist and abominations. I figured out way back if God is all-powerful, He cannot be all good. And if He is all good, then He cannot be all-powerful. And neither can you be.”
It’s a big question that’s elicited big answers from much bigger men than me. The logical implicit argument being made is that God, as we conceive him, does not exist. It’s a refashioning of Euthyphro’s dilemma (feel free to google it). As stated above, what makes the question so blasé in this movie is that good and evil are used as pretty darn relative terms (as we’ll see in a minute). If good and evil mean whatever “we the people” want them to mean, then the question loses its umph. If good is relative there wasn’t anything wrong with Luthor’s child abuse, really. It’s only wrong because society deemed it wrong, but if the coin had landed on heads instead of tails then we might as easily call child abuse right!
But of course that’s crazy. Child abuse is ACTUALLY WRONG whether society recognizes it or not.
You see, recognizing the problem of evil recognizes another thing: that morality really does exist. It is a standard independent of humanity that is universally applied to humanity that humanity knows at bottom. Real right and wrong, a Moral Law, must exist for evil to be a “problem,” and if a Moral Law exists, then there must be a Moral Law giver.
To address the actual question Luthor poses though, in order to defeat the logic it must be shown that God is all-good, while keeping his absolute sovereignty over the earth intact. If we can think of a logical answer to the question, “Why would an all-good, all-powerful God allow evil to exist?” then the problem has a solution and it’s no longer a problem.
I can think of at least one good reason that seems plausible: He has some greater, better, purpose in mind, for which evil is a necessary by-product. I think that greater better purpose is to love and glorify Him, and both of those things can’t be accomplished without the possibility of evil existing as well.
For God to create humans who freely choose to love and glorify Him the option not to love and glorify Him must be available, or the love and glory in question are meaningless. Humans originally chose not to love and glorify Him, and instead love and glorify themselves. The whole history of the world, and the evil involved with it, is the story of how that love and glory was still achieved while eradicating evil in the process (because Christians believe that it will ultimately be eradicated).
What’s more, if God truly is all-powerful, then he would choose the most efficient and effective way of achieving His purpose, and no evidence can be presented that there is a more efficient or effective way of achieving the purpose of humans truly loving and glorifying God. According to Occam’s razor then, this world, and the evil in it, is the quickest way to get God the glory and love he wants, while still eradicating evil. One might then say, “Well wouldn’t it be better then for him not to get all the glory and love he wants, to spare the evil?” to which I would reply, “Only if you think there is such a thing as ‘good’ or ‘better’ without God.” At which point we are back to the fact that a moral law exists and there must be a moral law giver.
Of course, Zack Snyder doesn’t present this answer, he leaves the claim hanging in order to imply that Superman isn’t God (and to imply that God doesn’t exist). He’s right on the first implication, wrong on the second.
Botching the Jesus Trope
It’s not hard at all to draw parallels between Superman and Jesus in this film. He’s repeatedly referred to as a savior, his colors are seen in a stained glass image of Jesus, and there’s even a scene where everyone is crowding around him, just trying to touch him (putting one in mind of Luke 6:19). He is the symbol of hope in the story, and he’s the “god” character, and he’s not supposed to be able to die… but he does. And what’s more, he comes back to life! Can you say resurrection narrative? The problem is, all throughout the movie, Snyder has been busy ‘humanizing’ superman with lines like, “No one stays good in this world,” and “Superman was never real, just the dream of a farmer.” He does this humanizing of Superman all the while forgetting that Superman’s not human! He’s outside humanity. He’s not supposed to sink to humanity’s level. If the story were only that Superman is tempted to ignore good, that would be a perfect Jesus trope, because Jesus was tempted in that way as well, but Superman gives in from time to time and does some rather un-good things. It’s a huge missed opportunity. Here you have a character who can sympathize with the human race in every way but sin, and you go and make him sin? (I realize, it’s not a perfect metaphor either, because Jesus is fully human excepting sin, which Superman is not. But as far as available characters in pop culture go, it’s the best we have and I’ll take what I can get.)
Humanizing superman without literally making him a human is the easiest way to ruin the Jesus trope you obviously were going for, and ruin it you did.
Good is a Conversation?
Senator Finch, the junior democrat from Kentucky played by Holly Hunter, is a perfect embodiment of Americans who are clueless about both America and morality. One of her silliest statements is, “In a democracy, good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision” implying that America is a democracy, and that, in America, the people determine what is good. As shown above, the second premise is obviously false.
Good is not determined by conversation. It may be discovered by conversation, but good is an independent reality that exists whether we talk about it or not, democracy or no.
The first premise is also false. America is not a democracy; it’s a republic. The basic difference is that we elect people who represent us to make decisions, we don’t make every decision. If you need proof that America is a republic and not a democracy (as I did a few years ago… hard to believe I was so misinformed) simply recite the pledge of allegiance. How does it go? “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the…REPUBLIC… for which it stands…” Yes. We are a republic, not a democracy. That’s a big and important difference. Our founders recognized that humans are the problem in the system, and that a representative system with checks and balances, rather than a democratic system, helped to limit the fallen human nature’s role in the process of governing. I wish we still recognized that, but we don’t recognize that humans are fallen anymore, so how would we recognize the need to limit their role? Which leads to my last point.
Humans are the Source of Hope
In Batman vs Superman it is made very clear that humanity is the hope for future good, because the “gods” in the movie sure were sub-par. Batman’s last monologue is, “Men are still good. We fight, we kill, we betray one another, but we can rebuild. We can do better. We will. We have to.” Yeah… a couple things with that. 1) No men are not “still good.” We haven’t been good since the fall in Genesis 3. Your first premise is not true, and your following statements directly contradict your first premise (fighting, killing, and betrayal are usually agreed upon as “not good things”). 2) “We can do better”? What planet are you living on? You’ve been fighting crime for 20 years in Gotham and it hasn’t gotten any better, you said so yourself. Humans are fallen and they need to be redeemed and saved. They cannot save themselves. I would think the joker would have convinced you of this. 3) “We have to.” Why do we have to? The implicit argument is that there’s nobody left but us. The one hope there was of “better” outside of humans was Superman, and he’s supposedly dead when these lines are uttered. In his mind, humans are the best of what’s left. That might actually be true, but it sure isn’t hopeful or comforting, and it puts me in mind of this year’s election cycle. (but I digress…)
This point is hammered home in a vigil held in Superman’s honor where a bunch of people are gathered around a Superman “S” and the words “If you seek his monument, look around you,” are painted under it (words from the architect Christopher Wren’s tombstone). The point is clear: people who are now changed for the better are Superman’s monument. But they haven’t been changed for the better, as Batman’s monologue has already shown.
The end result is one big mixed signal. Are humans good, or aren’t they? Is there hope for humanity, or isn’t there? Superman’s “S” was the symbol for hope, and it’s been impaled and laid in a grave. On top of that, right after the whole “Humans are the hope of the world” thing, we turn to crazy Lex Luthor who is the embodiment of all the evidence to the contrary (and to the truth). Destruction and evil are the only things for which humans can be relied upon, but the movie seems to be saying that Luthor is either an exception to the rule or a victim of his circumstance. He’s neither. He is the rule. He is the trope for humanity in this big theological metaphor.
The movie reaches a height of hilarious mixed signals when it accidentally (for the sake of sequels) resurrects the REAL hope for good: Superman (aka. Jesus trope). So the viewer is walking away saying, “They told me that humanity was the hope for the future, but it sure seemed like Superman being resurrected was where the real hope lies.”
I love it when movies accidentally preach the gospel, despite their best efforts.
A Final Thought
This whole “humans are inherently good” thing is the common theological thread in most Superhero movies. What’s sad is it comes so close to the truth. Humans are inherently worth saving, but only because we bear the image of God. That’s the only reason we haven’t been wiped out yet, I reckon. However, humans are NOT inherently good. This distinction is one that the abortion industry seems to have trouble understanding. You see, in our inherently evil state, we want to kill the unborn humans who are inconvenient, but inherently worth saving. But that’s another issue for another blog post.